Reflections on a gutless future

Dec 27, 2016 11.00AM |

by Brenda Tan

DECEMBER is usually a perfect time of reflection to contemplate on our life’s journey taken for the year – the pitfalls and detours, the challenges overcame, and the support and love we encounter along the way. It’s a time we take stock of what we learned about ourselves and look forward to a new year, refreshed with the clarity of hindsight, to give us both insight in responding to the present and foresight to prepare for the future.

As a Christian and a mother of school-going children though, the December vacation is also an immensely busy time of church festivities, family outings and celebrations, and preparation for school reopening. You can see why this much-needed time for quiet personal reflection is hard to come by. Still, it’s a necessary pause, otherwise the overwhelming activities of the season may just cause us to miss taking stock of the year at this natural pitstop.


Hungry no more

“I’ve even had my mediport removed and had an X-ray done to confirm that that surgery was a success.”

My last update on The Middle Ground regarding my cancer journey was in July, about the midway point in my chemotherapy sessions. Since completing all 12 of my chemo sessions in November, I’ve undergone a CT scan, an MRI, and another endoscopy to confirm that I’m currently cancer-free. I’ve even had my mediport removed and had an X-ray done to confirm that that surgery was a success. On the horizon now are quarterly check-ups over the next few years, to make sure that nothing (to quote my new favourite word from my oncologist) “exciting” is seen in my health report.

Due to my no longer having a stomach, both my surgeon and oncologist had advised me post-surgery to “eat everything” in order to retain my body mass to undergo the chemo sessions more successfully. My surgeon even suggested dark chocolates as a component of my diet, something which I most happily complied. My only food restriction was taking TCM herbs, as my oncologist was concerned that my liver may be overtaxed, if it had to deal with both the chemo-meds and the TCM herbs.

Thus, I ate as much as I could, and as often as I could, regardless of whether I was hungry or not. Apparently, without a stomach, I could no longer feel hungry. Living in food-crazy Singapore, though, I had constant reminders of good eats on my Facebook news feed, and more importantly, I’m still blessed with taste-buds! Thus, I managed to refrain from losing too much weight during the chemotherapy sessions, although I did lose enough muscle mass that my clothes no longer fit.

Although I was able to eat everything, including my favourite chilli padi, the problem was knowing just how much is enough and how much is too much. The ideal quantity varies with different types of food, and I’d feel terrible if I accidentally overeat.

Like not feeling hungry, I’m no longer able to judge satiation, and by the time I know I’m “full”, it’s usually too late. While the sensation of severe heartburn usually passes within half an hour of lying down, it’s having to wait until I feel comfortable that adds to a tiredness and fear of eating.

To overcome this, I pace myself at mealtimes. I fix the quantity that I’m able to consume on my plate (giving priority to my favourite dishes) and eat much more slowly than my companions.

After all, there is a limit to how much I can consume at one sitting.


Back in the saddle again

Prior to my cancer diagnosis, I was an avid distance cyclist, clocking 50 to 60 km rides with my husband late in the night or in the early mornings, once or twice a week if work allowed. We had also taken part in a few bike rallies and cycling fundraisers on my foldable bike, riding the 80 km to 100 km distance challenges.

“…with encouragement from my husband, I finally got back on my bicycle for a short 4km ride with him”

We had planned to cycle the 633 km Four Rivers Bicycle Trail from Seoul to Busan in March with my eldest son, when it was disrupted by my diagnosis and surgery, and I haven’t ridden on a bicycle since. However, with encouragement from my husband, I finally got back on my bicycle for a short 4km ride with him on Dec 10.

My Seoul to Busan bike ride was supposed to be a pre-Poly admission trip with my son, to spend some quality time with him before he started his new phase of education. With my cancer, not only was the trip cancelled, I wasn’t able to be there for him on his first day at Poly.

Missing my son’s first day at Poly wasn’t the only thing the cancer derailed. Besides missing milestones on the homefront, my work plans for conducting regional workshops, attending conferences, and work for clients had to be cancelled or redirected to work associates to fulfill.

Nonetheless, even though I’m feeling stronger now that I’ve completed the chemotherapy sessions, my oncologist warned me that recovery from the sessions may take between six months to a year – or even longer.

So I face a tension – to reclaim my life before the cancer, yet to do it at a pace that allows for my body to recover well. Unfortunately, so far I’ve not been very good at pacing – it’s usually when I’m paralysed with exhaustion at the end of the day that I realise that my enthusiasm to get back on track and do everything may need to be readjusted.

Thus, like my eating habits, my judgment on how much I can do is impaired. I’ve got to learn to fix the quantity that I’m able to consume on my plate time-wise (giving priority to my favourite activities or more urgent needs) and allow myself to go slow and take time.

But it’s sometimes really hard to remember about my permanent gutless state, when life tastes so good!

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Much to be thankful for

“…when we keep our focus on the people around us and off ourselves, even the most arduous journey can be a meaningful one”

At the close of 2016, I’m actually grateful for this year’s cancer detour.

It has reminded me once more that life’s journey is lived through faith, people, and love: That even when I’m showered with support, I’m still able to comfort and bless – still able to listen, to hold, to seek the well-being for others by praying for their needs; that when we keep our focus on the people around us and off ourselves, even the most arduous journey can be a meaningful one of forging friendships and deepening relationships.

And that we are still blessed with an opportunity and ability to say a sincere “thank you” to everyone who has blessed us in their encouragement on our journey –

So, thank you, my family, friends, well-wishers, and prayer warriors! You’ve all made this journey of mine one that’s expanded my horizon and affirmed my belief in the goodwill of people.

It’s as the Christmas angels proclaim: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”

Have a blessed Christmas, and a fruitful 2017!


Brenda is a columnist, and a friend, of The Middle Ground. Read her other pieces, in a series of occasional columns on her journey with stomach cancer:

  1. No stomach for cancer
  2. Reframing cancer as an opportunity to grow
  3. Mummy musings: Mothering through cancer
  4. Midway checkpoint on my cancer journey 


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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